On Friday, November 8, a 22-year-old French college student set himself on fire outside the government agency that administers university housing and living allowances. The reason? The government had revoked his monthly benefits after he failed his courses for the second year in a row.
His suicide attempt touched off violent national protests that the government is perpetrating “violence” against the students of France’s tuition-free universities, because it reduced students’ monthly living stipend by $10 a month.
The 22 year old, who is known as “Anas K.,” sustained burns over 90 percent of his body and, as of this writing, remains in critical condition.
A suicidal epitaph: “Long live socialism”
The fourth-year sophomore at Lyon 2 University – who also served as the federal secretary of a Trotskyite socialist organization known as Solidaires – explained the “political” reasons behind his decision on social media. France24 reports:
“I accuse Macron, Hollande, Sarkozy and the European Union of killing me by creating uncertainty over everyone’s futures,” the political science student added, noting that his monthly stipend of €450 had been withdrawn after he failed the second year of his degree for a second time.
The final sentence of the message, in which he announced that he would end his life, declared, “Long live socialism.”
Solidaires explained that Anas’ attempted self-immolation was a “deeply political, desperate act” to highlight the “too common violence” that “inhuman institutions” including “the State and the University exert against the students.”
The group called for activists to gather last Tuesday, November 12, outside college, universities, and education ministry buildings to protest for higher living benefits.
Their slogan: “La précarité tue” – “Financial uncertainty kills.”
Hundreds stormed the Higher Education Ministry building in Paris and wrote the phrase on a wall nearby. Those unable to attend in person protested online, using the hashtag #LaPrecariteTue.
“Members of Communist youth organisation MJCF and Communist students organisation UEC, along with members of the student union Solidaires, of which Anas is a member, also took part in the protests,” according to the Peoples Dispatch.
Violent protesters prevented former Socialist President François Hollande from giving a speech in Lille.
One of the 800 protesters outside the Crous building in Lyon, named Lætitia, called Anas’ suicide “a strong, altruistic gesture.”
And his comrades in Solidaire threatened officials: “We want answers to our demands. Now. For this to not happen again.”
What cold-blooded violence had the government perpetrated to drag desperate French students to death’s door?
Life or death, for $10 a month
France long ago adopted “free” college education, allowing French students to attend university tuition-free. Roughly 800,000 students from a lower- or middle-income background also receive a monthly government allowance of €234 to cover their living expenses. Anas received $500 a month. In fact, the French government spends €5.7 billion ($6 billion U.S.) on means-tested assistance to college students, more than it spends on foreign affairs.
But in 2017, President Emmanuel Macron reduced benefits to students by approximately €5 a month directly and another €4.20 a month by calculating benefits differently.
Most students still have money left over each month – but not enough to live on. That lit the fuse that ended in the West’s most recent public immolation.
Anas wrote in his farewell message:
This year I am doing the second year of my bachelor’s degree for the third time. I have no grant. Even when I had one, I received €450 a month. How can one live on that? And after our studies how long will we have to work to pay our social charges to have a decent pension?
Anas and his cohort are rebelling against France’s robust welfare state because, in addition to free tuition, it does not pay their full living costs for years at a time.
France24 reports that protesters are incensed that “students are compelled to work to meet their needs.” In 2016, 46 percent of French university students held a job in addition to going to school. By comparison, 43 percent of all U.S. full-time students, and 81 percent of all part-time undergrads, also had a job, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“Free” university attendance has become a presidential campaign issue in the United States. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro and Tulsi Gabbard would make four-year college “free” for all low- and middle-income students; Warren, Sanders, and Castro would extend that to all students, without any means-testing.
However, too much of the analysis of “College for All” proposals has been purely economic, and too little has focused on how they affect the human person.
Lessons to learn
The tragic attempted suicide of Anas K. proves that this issue holds lessons for people of goodwill on both sides of the Atlantic.
1. Government benefits create an insatiable desire for more entitlements. France already has tuition-free college for all students. However, students are protesting – to the point of self-immolation – to demand the government pay all the costs associated with their schooling, regardless of their performance. Anas K. appears to have spent at least as much of his time and mental energy on socialist activism as on his studies. Yet he demands the government pay him to become in effect a professional student. Once the government begins to assume everyday functions that people can perform for themselves, the people demand more comprehensive benefits.
2. Receiving government benefits saps the energy of even the most vibrant citizens. As government grows, the individual’s initiative and agency shrinks. University students may have more enthusiasm and energy than at any other point in their lives. Yet college-aged socialist protesters would rather die a fiery death than work an average of nine hours a week. (Interestingly, less than half of French students who work a “very time-consuming” job say it has negatively impacted their studies.) “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies,” Pope John Paul II presciently observed in Centesimus Annus.
3. Socialism reduces the value of human life. The Judeo-Christian heritage of the West upholds the dignity and inviolability of every human person. Socialism, which believes the individual is less important than society as a whole, gladly sacrifices lives to fulfill its messianic aims. Christians may allow others to kill their bodies rather than deny God, but they do not kill themselves in service of a larger, all-consuming economic and social ideology. Instead of using the hashtag #LaPrecariteTue, students should have used #SocialismKills.
4. Government entitlements increase loneliness and alienation. The greatest pity is that no one who read Anas K.’s online suicide note stopped his “altruistic” gesture. For all its discussion of “solidarity,” creeping government encroachments displace real human interaction with a bureaucratic maze of impersonal laws and programs. “Collectivism does not do away with alienation but rather increases it, adding to it a lack of basic necessities and economic inefficiency,” Pope John Paul II observed. He realized that people’s “needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need.”
It is tragic that an outgoing, gregarious student like Anas K. found no one who would treat him like a neighbor in his hour of need.
Further reading: The spring issue of Religion & Liberty dealt with education, including “free” college and student loan forgiveness. The issue, which includes insights from Anne Rathbone Bradley and Trey Dimsdale, can be downloaded here.
(Photo credit: Pierre-Selim. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)